Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How I Learned to Cook

Today on a fellow Holidailies blogger's blog, she talked about cooking at home versus eating out. That got me thinking back to our Thanksgiving break, when we had a Chinese student spending the holidays with us, and noticing that I do all the cooking in our house, he asked how I learned to cook. So this is a post about how I became a cook.

I grew up in a house where my mom cooked dinner pretty much every night. I wouldn't say that I learned to cook from her, though. I did develop a deep appreciation for the baking of desserts. From an early age, I had a strong understanding of all aspects of cookie baking, from bringing together the sugars and fats to adding the rest of the ingredients to tasting--and constantly re-tasting--the dough to make sure it is good, to spooning the dough out onto the baking sheet (pressing peanut butter cookies down with a fork in a criss-cross pattern) and taking the cookies off. My mother had a firm belief that making a triple recipe of cookies was no more trouble than making a single recipe, and once you got started baking cookies, you might just as well bake a half dozen different varieties. She would freeze the extras, if any could properly be called "extra."

However, other than cookies, I was an incredibly picky eater (the only pickiness I showed with cookies was a distaste for raisin). I drove my mother and my grandmother crazy with my unwillingness to eat a whole lot of things. However, when I went to college, I went ahead and tried a bunch of things because a lot of things were new and I wanted to see what I would like, and also I recognized that being a picky eater made me look kind of weird to other people (the positive power of peer pressure!), so I started eating more things.

One of the things I discovered in the dining hall was the freshly baked bread they had there, but when I came back home to my small town in northern Ohio, there wasn't yet any available other than whatever varieties Wonder made: white, wheat, rye... and I think they were just coming out with potato bread. So over the summer I came home and wanted to learn to cook—but more especially to learn to bake bread. So Mom got me a Betty Crocker picture cookbook and I started with that. And I basically learned how to make white bread, whole wheat bread, and dinner rolls, but being fresh-baked, those varieties were still pretty exciting.

Later that summer, I went to a writing workshop, and fired up about my new interest, I talked about it with anyone who would listen. One of the friends I made over kitchen talk was an adult male with an interest in cooking, who recommended the Moosewood Restaurant’s cookbooks. So I jumped into Moosewood cookbooks with both feet, just trying out one recipe after another when I got home. Because those cookbooks were almost exclusively vegetarian,  I’m pretty sure we ate vegetarian for a solid month, though not with any serious intent to be vegetarian, but because we thought the food was pretty good.

I continued cooking, mostly during the summers, but also sometimes for friends in college, and then I went to graduate school and lived in an apartment by myself, so I just continued cooking, because it made sense to do so: cheaper and more satisfying. And the more I did it, the better I got at it; and the better I got at it, the more I enjoyed it. At first, of course, I was basically just following recipes. But the funny thing is, the more time you spend following recipes, the more you tend to get a feel for what works together, and the more you become willing to improvise and take risks. Since I was just cooking for myself, I didn't have to worry about pleasing anyone but myself, which is a liberating way to do things.

For five years after graduate school, I worked and lived at a boarding school, where I basically didn't have to cook (in fact, the fact that I was required to eat most of my meals with students actively discouraged me from cooking most days). But there, too, I was basically free to cook what and when I wanted to, no pressure.

By the time I started living with Lauren, I was pretty thoroughly competent at cooking, and I've been doing it ever since, experimenting with lots of cuisines and dietary plans in the intervening years. I have quite a few cookbooks--some of them are go-to cookbooks and some of them, I go through phases where I'm always cooking from them and other periods where they sit collecting dust. I pull things from the internet and either follow them or modify them as the spirit moves me.


  1. Cooking is a good skill for anyone - man or woman- to have! My husband is actually a pretty good cook, but he isn't home much to do it. He likes to experiment much more than I do. Unfortunately, his experiments often involve using ingredients that my picky eater kids (or me) won't eat! Once he bought over $100 of groceries to make some spinach stuffed chicken for our anniversary... guess what, I don't like spinach! I tend to stick to more familiar dishes just to avoid the conflict.

  2. My 13 yr old nephew loves to cook and I'm so happy about that. It also makes buying gifts for him so easy.